There are always risks and uncertainties involving a new coaching staff, especially one led by somebody with no previous head coaching experience. But I'm looking forward to the reign of new University of Houston coach Kevin Sumlin. He has a stout resume, having spent the last five years working under Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops as the Sooners' offensive coordinator. Previous to that, he served at the same position at Texas A&M. The Indianapolis native, who played for Purdue as a linebacker, has also served as an assistant on coaching staffs at Washington State, Wyoming, Minnesota and his alma mater. Sumlin has also put together a diverse staff of experienced assistants including former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Dana Holgerson and defensive coordinator John Skladany, who previously served as defensive coordinator at Iowa State and Center Florida. Other notable assistants include Houston’s own Jason Phillips, who coaches wide receivers; former Dallas Cowboy and two-time Super Bowl champion Jim Jeffcoat, who the defensive line; and even Sumlin’s old head coach at Purdue, Leon Burtnett, who coaches linebackers. Sumlin’s staff also includes an actual special teams coordinator, Tony Levine.
The Coogs certainly seem to have a solid coaching staff, but proof of their abilities to teach, direct and motivate their players won’t be revealed until the season begins. Both sides of the ball will have to learn and become comfortable with a new staff's scheme, and while the Texas Tech spread offense being installed by Sumlin and Holgerson is not radically different than the style of offense that Briles ran, there’s still a need for adjustment and that, along with the fact that the Cougars have to restock a lot of key positions on both side of the ball, suggests that there could be struggles for at least the first portion of the season.
Sumlin’s first big decision of the fall was made a week ago, when Case Keenum was named starting quarterback. Keenum, last year’s Conference USA Freshman of the Year, had spent the offseason battling for the starting position with Blake Joseph, whom also took snaps at QB last season. The stronger-armed Joseph apparently looked good during spring practices, but Keenum, who clearly has the better scrambling ability and pocket presence of the two quarterbacks, performed better during August drills. Although doubts about his ability to lob the deep bombs persist, Keenum has been working on his arm strength over the offseason. At the very least, Sumlin’s decision to name the starting quarterback two weeks ahead of time – as opposed to the annoying Art Briles technique of not naming a starting quarterback until the day of the first game - means that the entire team can rally around one person and Keenum can rightfully assume his role as offensive leader.
The offensive line is expected to be the strength of the offense this fall. LT Sebastian Vollmer, RG Mike Bloesch and C Carl Barnett, who had a rough start last year but improved as the season wore on, return as offensive line starters. The biggest news on the O-line, however, is the return of SirVincent Rogers, who hasn’t played since 2006. There’s no denying that SirVincent was one of the most talented linemen in the conference prior to his injury, but he was also so prone to committing devastating personal fouls that teammates gave him the nickname “Sir Penalty.” If he has matured as a player and if he can stay healthy - always a concern for players returning from major injuries - he could have an outstanding season and look good to NFL scouts in the process. The O-line needs to provide better pass protection than they did a year ago, when they gave up a cringe-inducing 34 sacks. To be fair, however, some of those sacks were caused by young quarterback uncertainty more than anything else.
The wideouts are probably the weakest position on offense. Mark Hafner, who played tight end last year but is being moved to the slot receiver position in Holgerson’s new offense, is almost certainly the best receiver on the team right now. Last year, he caught 40 passes for 428 yards. Other than Hafner, the two other most experienced returning wide receivers are LJ Castile and Chris Gilbert. However, neither of them show up as starters on the latest depth chart: Gilbert is still recovering from off-season surgery, and LJ was apparently too inconsistent in practice to nail down a starting gig. The relative inexperience of the other wide receivers that are listed as starters - redshirt freshmen Patrick Edwards and Tyron Carrier, JUCO transfer Kierrie Johnson and sophomore Charles Rodriguez – is a big red flag in my eyes.
The backfield situation is a bit more set. Terrance Ganaway’s decision to leave the program means that Andre Kohn will assume the starting RB position by default. He didn’t see a lot of action last year, carrying only 28 times for 146 yards, but made a name for himself with his 67-yard touchdown reception in the Texas Bowl. His backups will include true freshman Bryce Beall, who apparently made such an impression in practice that he climbed to the top of the depth chart, and redshirt freshman Justin Johnson.
The defense is reverting back to a 4-3 scheme in order to take advantage of a line that is expected to be the strength of the Cougar defense this fall. All-Conference senior Philip Hunt, who notched 10.5 sacks and 18 TFLs last season, is the star of the defense. He is joined on the line by seniors Tate Stewart and Ell Ash and sophomore Isaiah Thompson. Experienced backups include seniors Cody Pree and Jake Ebner and transfer Tyrell Graham, who previously played linebacker at Arkansas. Unfortunately, another top D-line sub, Billy Hartford, suffered an ACL injury in practice and is done for the season.
The defense will likely have to rely on the line to stop the run because they feature only one returning starting linebacker, Cody Lubojasky. Lubojasky, a four-year starter, had 59 tackles last season. Junior Matt Nicholson, who played in every game last season and notched 36 tackles, will be joining him, and as will true freshman Marcus McGraw. Surely I'm not the only person uncomfortable with the concept of a true freshman starting at linebacker.
The secondary is going to be anchored by safety Kenneth Fontennette, another defensive leader and all-conference player who had 65 tackles and four interceptions last year. Safety Earnest Miller and corners Quinte Williams and Brandon Brinkley also return from last season’s squad. While the secondary did lead the conference in pass defense, they also got torched for 28 touchdown passes last season and only managed to pick off 14 interceptions, so there is plenty of room for improvement.
Special Teams were clearly an area of neglect during the Briles era, and it showed. The Cougars were 114th (out of 119 FBS teams) in net punting average, and the kicking game (or lack thereof) cost the Cougars at least one win last year (when T. J. Lawrence missed not one, but two, late field goals against East Carolina). Replacing T. J. Lawrence at place kicker is Ben Bell, who is back after sitting out all of last season. He is usually reliable from inside 40 yards. He is being pushed, however, by true freshman Jordan Mannisto, who has impressed in practice. Chase Turner returns as punter; after a slow start, he came on strong last season and averaged 42.7 yards per punt. He needs better punt return coverage; the Cougars also need to a better job with kick returns this fall.
Special teams, along with penalties and turnovers, constituted the “Unholy Trinity” of UH football under the Briles regime. The Cougars were among the top ten most-penalized programs in FBS last season, and were 99th in turnover margin. I got tired of seeing the team make the same stupid mistakes, game after game, season after season, and I am hopeful that Sumlin and his staff will finally exorcise this Unholy Trinity from the soul of the program.
So that's the team. What about the schedule? At first glance, it looks favorable, with seven games in the City of Houston and no opponents on any preseason top 25 polls. But that shouldn't be misconstrued to mean that the Coogs have an easy road ahead of them. Although there are no clearly “unwinnable” games on Houston’s slate, the matchup against Oklahoma State in Stillwater is going to be very tough. UH defense has historically had a tough time containing mobile quarterbacks like the Cowboys’ Zac Robinson, and since this game is so early in the season it’s likely that the Cougar offense still won’t be firing on all cylinders. With the exception of Southern, the other non-conference games aren’t gimmes, either. Colorado State has a new coach looking to turn things around from last season’s disappointment, and the Rams get the Coogs at altitude in Fort Collins after a bye week. Air Force ended last season with a 9-4 record and, even though they have relatively few starters returning, cannot be taken lightly.
The conference schedule isn't any easier. East Carolina returns 20 starters from a team that went 8-5 last season and is widely expected to have the best defense in the conference. The Coogs have to play them on the road. Marshall has brought in new coordinators on both sides of the ball and looks to improve from last year’s 3-9 campaign. The Coogs will have to contend with 2006 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Albert McClellan, who returns to the Thundering Herd lineup after missing all of last year with an injury, as well as deal with the rowdy crowd at Edwards stadium in Huntington. UAB offensive coordinator (and former UH head coach) Kim Helton and UAB head coach (and former UH offensive coordinator) Neil Calloway are looking for ways to improve on UAB’s 2-10 record of a year ago and avenge the 45-10 spanking they suffered at the hands of the Cougars last season. Remember the problems that the Cougars have against mobile quarterbacks? Joe Webb is one.
The divisional slate is not a cakewalk, either. At the top of the list is Tulsa, which wiped the Skelly Stadium turf with the Cougars, 56-7, in route to a division championship last fall. The Golden Hurricane led the nation in offensive yards per game last season and, even though they lose quarterback Paul Smith, are certain to put another dominant offense on the field this fall. Beating them will not be easy, not even at Robertson. June Jones took a winless Hawaii team and turned them into a 9-win program in one season. There’s no reason why he can’t pull off a similar turnaround at SMU, which was 1-11 last season. The Cougars have to play the Ponies on the road, as well. With UTEP the Cougars will have to contend with an explosive offense led by QB Trever Vitteroe, who threw for over three thousand yards last season. Head coach Mike Price has brought in an entirely new defensive coaching staff to fix what was one of the nation’s worst defenses last season. Rice will likely see improvement over their 3-9 record of a year ago under David Bailiff, and any Houston fan who thinks the Owls are an automatic win obviously hasn’t paid attention to the last three Bayou Bucket games. The UH defense had a huge problem containing Chase Clement and Jarrett Dillard last year, so what makes anybody think that this year is going to be different? As for Tulane, well, uh, there are some games the Cougars have no business losing at all. But, as anybody who suffered through the UL-Lafayette game a couple of years ago knows, sometimes the Coogs lose games they shouldn't.
The structure of the schedule is not completely favorable, either. After playing Southern the Cougars have to go on the road for five of their next seven contests. However, they do get some much-needed rest in late October and early November, playing only one game in twenty days (a Tuesday night matchup at Marshall) and all of November’s games – including that crucial showdown against Tulsa – take place in Houston.
So, what can the Cougars and their fans expect from the season ahead? Preseason predictions are about as valuable as the paper they're printed on - they play the games for a reason, after all - but it's neverthless interesting to see what the pigskin pundits say about the state of the UH program.
The collegefootballpoll.com website, which uses the Congrove Computer system that has accurately predicted the Cougars’ final regular season record within two games eight out of the last 14 seasons, foresees the Cougars notching a 9-3 record this fall, with losses to Oklahoma State, East Carolina and Tulsa, whom they predict will be the C-USA champion. Likewise, southerncollegesports.com foresees the Cougars ending the season at 9-3, 6-2 in conference. “If everything goes well,” they report, “an upset on the road at Oklahoma State is not out of the question, and the Cougars get division favorite Tulsa in the middle of a three-game homestand in November. 7-1 and a division title are as good as it will get.” However, “if Houston's offense is not back to good this season and the defense begins to struggle, road games at Marshall, Colorado State, and Rice are all very possible losses. That would drop the cougars to 6-6 and 4-4, and probably home for the holidays.” They report. SCS thinks the Houston-Tulsa game as the one which will decide the Western crown this season.
Other sites aren't quite as optimistic about the Coogs; collegefootballnews.com only foresees a 6-6 campaign in 2008, with losses to Oklahoma State, Air Force, Colorado State, East Carolina, Marshall and Tulsa. This prediction is shared by msnbc.com, which also foresees a 6-win season. Sports Illustrated ranks Houston #71 out of 119 schools going into the fall; in their C-USA preview, Sports Illustrated says that the Coogs will do no better than third in C-USA West, with a 7-5 record overall and a 4-4 record in conference. SI writer Stewart Mandell, however, still thinks that the Cougars will contend for a bowl berth.
Jeff Sagarin's preseason ratings at usatoday.com place the Coogs 77th in the nation, with a rating of 67.97. When the ratings of opposing teams as well as the home field advantage are taken into account, his ratings imply a 7-5 season for the Cougars. Last year Sagarin started Houston at #77 and finished at #84; his 2007 preseason rankings implied an 8-4 regular season for the Coogs, which is exactly what happened. Rivals starts Houston as the 59-ranked in the nation and predicts the Cougars to finish second in C-USA west behind Tulsa. CBS Sportsline foresees the Cougars finishing second in the division, behind Tulsa, as well. The Coogs were also picked to finish second in the west division in the preseason coaches' poll. The college football bloggers at the New York Times rank the Cougars #64 and foresee a 8-4 record (6-2 in conference, finishing behind Tulsa in the Western division). The preseason magazines generally agree; most of them predict that the Coogs will wind up behind Tulsa in the Western Division, although Blue Ribbon thinks that Houston will emerge as division champs while Phil Steele doesn’t think that Houston will do better than fourth place in the division.
Over at the Chronicle, UH beat writer Michael Murphy foresees a 9-3 record for Houston. SarCoog2010, who has done an outstanding job previewing all of Houston’s opponents on his Chronicle blog, predicts a 9-3 season for the Good Guys as well.So that's what others think about the Coogs this fall. What do I think?
Well, as much as I'd like to buy into the idea of a nine-win season, I just don't see it happening. I'm not sold on the wide receivers or the linebackers, I think that it's going to take some time for the team to adjust to the new coaching staff and their techniques, and, until proven otherwise, the "Unholy Trinity" remains a big problem. Some of the games that look like easy wins today - Colorado State, in the thin air; SMU, with June Jones at the helm - might turn out to be big roadbumps. So I'm going to keep my expectations conservative and predict a seven-win season for the Cougars in 2008. The Cougars will defeat Southern, UAB, Tulsa and UTEP and will get past Rice in another trilling Bayou Bucket showdown. Rhey will win one of their two games against Mountain West opponents Colorado State and Air Force and will also split their October road trip between SMU and Marshall. I do not expect the Cougars to defeat Oklahoma State and East Carolina on the road Tulsa will get past them at Robertson.
Last year I predicted a 7-5 season for the Coogs. They bested my prediction by one game en route to a respectable 8-5 campaign and a bowl game. I hope the same thing happens this year. If the Coogs do go bowling this year, I'd also like to see them do something they haven't done in the postseason since 1980 - win.A shorter version of this preview appears at collegefootballtopten.com. Thanks to Todd for kindly inviting me to do a guest blog for him!